Beloved – Sun January 12, 2020
What if John had stuck to his “no”?
Today we celebrate the baptism of Jesus… our Lord… as told in the Gospel according to Matthew. We are in year “A” of our 3-year lectionary cycle, which means a focus on the Gospel of Matthew and its unique contribution to the story of Jesus. His baptism is one of the few events that is told in all the gospels, if barely in John. Each one has their unique take. The unique part in Matthew’s telling is John the Baptist’s reluctance to fulfill his ministry in relationship to Jesus. “John would have prevented him,” the story goes, “saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you and do you come to me?’” What if John had stuck to this “no”?
To better understand John’s “no,” it helps to look back a few verses, to the story of John immediately before today’s story. Part of John’s preaching to the crowds, including Pharisees and Sadducees coming to him for baptism, comes in verse 11: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” I am not worthy… it is no wonder that when, only 2 verses later, Jesus comes to be baptized by John at the Jordan, John says “no.” “He would have prevented him,” the story reads. “I need to be baptized by you…” John doesn’t repeat, “I am not worthy…” to Jesus in that moment, but it’s not hard to imagine it is his underlying ontology, impacting his theology. In other words, John’s underlying belief about who he is, his identity, is the lens through which John sees everything… how he sees the world; how he engages in relationship with God and others; how he responds to God’s call. This is true of all of us.
“I am not worthy…” is a phrase with which we are familiar. We say it twice in the BCP service. “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs…” and then again right near the end, after communion. The prayers starts with one of my favourite lines: “And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee.” Beautiful. Empowering. And then it continues, “And although we are unworthy, yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service…” <big sigh> If you’re not familiar with these prayers, fantastic. Forget about them immediately. Except to understand that even for those who have shifted to different language, aka the BAS, ontological unworthiness… the belief that we are not worthy… is the ground on which many stand with John. For those trained in this theology, unless or until it is overtly, consciously, denied and replaced, it can continue to function under the surface to impacts our behaviour, our relationships, our community.
I have come to believe that this is one aspect of the unacknowledged, but operative, theology of this parish. Unevenly, and not unlike other parishes who have a deep connection to traditional Anglican worship practice. I actually think this theology of unworthiness is one of the key reasons such traditional Anglican expression is held onto so fiercely. That seems odd, I know, but it is because it lets you off the hook. One traditional church practice, lived out in our worship, that goes along with this theology exemplified in the BCP, is that the priest does everything. “I need to be baptized by you…” I tend to call it a “father knows best” approach. The priest stands in for Jesus, for God, and especially when things gets hard or uncomfortable, when push comes to shove, “just wait til your father comes home!” At times, I hear it behind an offer to “help” in that the one helping doesn’t actually bear much, if any, responsibility. And while that is true in some aspects of church life, it is not true in all aspects, not by a long shot. This is highlighted in our stewardship focus this year of “joyful giving” of time and talent, along with treasure.
There is so much I could say about this… there is much nuance worth exploring, and several paths, outcomes, results, that flow from it. In the interest of moving on, let me just say that embodying an ontology different than “I am not worthy…” Embracing instead a baptismal theology of “you are my beloved child…” changes everything… for the better! As a child of God, you are worthy. As a child of God, you are called to fulfill your ministry, within and beyond the boundaries of the church. Who you are is beloved and what you do, or don’t do, matters. You are worthy… so, if I’m expressing it with some frustration… act like it. And engage with those around you as though they are worthy… as though they too are beloved children of God, no better and no worse than you.
Jesus came to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him, and John exclaims, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” John has the sense to doubt his ontology… his belief in his own unworthiness… enough to choose curiosity and ask a question. It is John’s question, his doubt, that is the crack needed for God to work through Jesus. Maybe even to work miracles. In this case, it’s the miracle of getting past his “no.” John needed to *not* prevent Jesus from being baptized. By him. Because if John had insisted on his “no”, then the story would pretty much end there. If John had clung to his own idea of his lower status, his inferiority to Jesus, there’s little left to say. Story over.
Thankfully, John did get past his initial “no.” It happened with a simple, if somewhat obtuse explanation from Jesus: “Let is be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Righteousness can mean different things, with at least 2 main streams of meaning. One is righteousness as right human behaviour, in accordance with God’s instruction… obeying God’s commands. The other is righteousness as God’s future work of salvation, having little to do with human effort. The beauty of Jesus’ explanation here is that it could mean either, or both. It is beautifully ambiguous. Whatever John understood, it convinced him. John was willing to change enough, to let go of his belief enough, to consent to baptizing Jesus. John got past his “no” and found his “yes.”
What would it take for you to get past your “no”? Whatever it might be. No… it is not a coincidence that “getting past your no” and “finding your yes” is a theme that has occupied my head and heart in this week of beginning preparation for our Annual Meeting and recruiting people to join parish leadership. I’m happy to say I’ve already heard one “yes” this week. So what do you need… what would it take… for you to find your ‘yes’? What if your “yes” could be about more than obligation? In line with our “joyful giving” stewardship campaign, this week we talked about “finding your joy.” So say yes to ministry because God calls you to it, by virtue of your baptism. In baptism, you received grace beyond measure… you are a beloved child of God, forever and for always. So say yes because of what God has done. Say yes in response to God’s great love, and because you love this parish and this world. Say yes because your participation, what you do and what you don’t do, in this parish and in this world, matters. Say yes because you are worthy, and that doesn’t change, even when you mess up.
Our liturgical practice is about more than these 2 books. There are times, however, when the contrast is particularly striking. The theological transformation that I am expounding today is exemplified, symbolically and shockingly, in the difference in endings. “And although we are unworthy, yet we beseech thee…” was traded in for a doxology that says… “Glory to God, whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine…” The power of God is at work in you. None of us have it all. All of us have a piece, so we need each other. Together, the power of God, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. I wonder what we could do with it?